Friday, September 26, 2008

Muzzle - Betty Pickup (Reprise, 1996)

Muzzle may have called Seattle home, but their brand of punky power pop was more Sugar-era Bob Mould than Kurt Cobain (I feel like I end up referencing Cobain and co. in every post - but it was their success that set this signing frenzy into motion, after all). The band got their start in 1994 and were quickly snatched up by Warner Brother's Reprise Records. I suppose you could call Muzzle lucky, as they were actually able to get TWO commercially unsuccessful (yet extremely solid) records out of their deal before being dropped - 1996's Betty Pickup and 1999's Actual Size.

Betty Pickup was produced by Phil Ek, who had worked with many of the more popular indie rock bands from the Northwest like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse - yet the sort of hip lo-fi aesthetic you'd expect from such groups is not present on this slick, polished record. Perhaps a little less polish would have helped the band from falling into the bland territory, which it admittedly does at points. Regardless, songs like the album's lead single, "What A Bore" (video included below), were finely crafted power-pop gems and should have helped bring the band to greater heights than the ranks of obscurity where they
now reside.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pond - Rock Collection (Sony, 1997)

Portland, Oregon natives Pond got their start as one of the more fledgling bands on the Sub Pop label in the early 90s.  Along with bands like Hazel and Sprinkler, Pond were never able to cash in on the big Sub Pop/grunge boom, but that didn't stop Sony imprint label The Work Group from signing the band after two full lengths for Sub Pop.  Their third and final record, Rock Collection, was released by Sony/Work in 1997. Though instead of falling victim to the historically ill-fated major label debut, the record is considered by many to be their finest hour (though not successful commercially).

Rock Collection presented a more mature and polished take on the noise-pop (or "wussy-core" as the band called it) Pond had been honing on their first two records. Pond toured with a diverse array of bands, from Soundgarden to Rocket From the Crypt to Six Finger Satellite... none of whom Pond really sounded at all like. Pond probably would have fit in a little better with the soon to be burgeoning third-wave emo movement (aka the era of Sunny Day Real Estate clones) , and you can hear this sort of 90s-emo leaning in the album's moody single, "Spokes" (video included below). In fact, after the band's breakup, Pond members would go on to play in Audio Learning Center (also ex-Sprinkler), who were signed to emo powerhouse label, Vagrant Records.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Lifter - Melinda (Interscope, 1996)

You may know Lifter's Jeffrey Sebelia as the heavily tattooed winner of the third season of the TV show Project Runway. Years before Sebelia got involved with fashion, he was playing bass with this Interscope Records-signed post-grunge band. After forming in 1992, Lifter released several independent singles and a split with the Campfire Girls before signing with Interscope, who released their debut full-length, Melinda (Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt), in 1996.

Lifter emerged from the same Los Angeles scene that was home to several other great forgotten bands like Plexi, Gwenmars, The Campfire Girls, and Shufflepuck. Perhaps somewhat of a cliche of the L.A. scene, Lifter frontman Mike Coulter (as well as Sebelia) struggled with drug problems, and Interscope Records actually put Coulter through rehab before releasing the record. Melinda, named after Coulter's ex-girlfriend, manages to borrow heavily from the Cobain school of songwriting, without sounding simply like a Nirvana clone. The single "402" was a minor hit at college radio, but this unfortunately did not translate to album sales, and the band quickly became what allmusic describes as "the forgotten heroes of 90s teen angst". Lifter's music would later appear in the season three finale of Project Runway in 2006.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Slowpoke - Virgin Stripes (Geffen, 1998)

Long before Wind-Up Records became quite possibly the worst record label in existence, responsible for lowest common denominator music like Creed or Evanescence, it was a credible indie rock label known as Grass Records. Grass released albums from The Wrens, Commander Venus (Conor Oberst pre-Bright Eyes), and New Radiant Storm King (just to name a few) before being bought out and transformed into Wind-Up Records in 1997, with any trace of taste or integrity being thrown out the window. 

During its heyday, Grass Records was home to Slowpoke, a band little known outside of their hometown of Dallas, Texas. Grass released Slowpoke's debut full-length, Mad Chen, in 1994 as well as their split 7" with their soon to be semi-famous fellow Texans The Toadies. Slowpoke at this point exemplified the type of earnest, slightly discordant yet melody driven indie rock that Grass was known for. Yet Grass was in the middle of being sold when it came time for Slowpoke to release their second album, recorded with Wally Gagel (a member of the previously featured forgotten treasures band Orbit and noted engineer for the likes of Superchunk and Sebadoh). This situation was made even more complicated by the fact that Geffen Records, smelling a hit in Slowpoke, was now trying to buy the band out of their indie deal. Eventually Grass, now Wind-Up, sold the band to Geffen - a lengthy and difficult process that delayed the release of the album by almost two years. Geffen released this second effort, Virgin Stripes, in 1998. A considerably more pop-oriented and radio friendly affair than their previous releases, Virgin Stripes ultimately failed to stand out in the overcrowded alterna-pop world of the late 90s. Slowpoke would later change their name to Prize Money and make the move to indie label One Ton Records, who released their debut (and final) album, All Eyes On the Prize, in 2000.

Listen @ allmusic
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Slowpoke playing "Railroad" live circa 1998: 

you can find more Slowpoke live videos here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hoarse - Happens Twice (RCA, 1997)

When I first became aware of Hoarse, all I knew about them was that they included an ex-member of the band Sponge, so I was surprised when I heard a band that to me sounded more akin to Revelation records melodic post-hardcore bands like Farside, Shades Apart, Quicksand, etc. than the radio rock of Sponge. As it would turn out, Hoarse's principal songwriter, John Speck (who lists punk bands like Dag Nasty and The Descendents as influences), formed the band in 1994 with bassist Robby Graham - a year before Sponge's breakthrough Rotting Pinata album.  Drummer Jimmy Paluzzi left Sponge to join Hoarse the following year, giving the band the blessing and the curse of the "ex-Sponge" tag. Hoarse was quickly snatched up by RCA records, who released their debut, Happens Twice, in 1997. 

As the story so often goes, Hoarse had major conflicts with their record label, who apparently were unhappy enough with the album's original version to actually send the band an Everclear CD with a note that read: "this is what I want to hear". In the end, Happens Twice simply didn't sound very much like Everclear or whatever else was selling at the time, and strained relations with the label led to the band calling it quits a mere six months after the album's release. A few years later, Speck and Paluzzi regrouped as The Fags, a retro power pop style band who too had a brief major label run, this time with Sire records. Speck is currently revisiting his punk rock roots with new a band, The HiFi Handgrenades

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Monday, September 15, 2008

The Pulsars - s/t (Almo Sounds, 1997)

Dave Trumfio is easily best known as producer/mixer/engineer for the likes of Wilco, OK GO, Earlimart, Mates of State, and countless others - very few are familiar with the band he led in the mid 90s with his brother Harry: The Pulsars. The Chicago-native Trumfio brothers, along with a sequencer named Theodore 9000 crafted retro 80s synth pop inflected indie rock - vintage synths, slick new wave production and all (years before this would become considered cool... again). The band was signed to the Geffen Records distributed label, Almo Sounds, who released their 1997 self titled debut.

Despite touring with Weezer and appearing on MTV's Oddville and 120 Minutes, mainstream success just wasn't in the cards for The Pulsars. When Almo Sounds shelved the band's second record, the Trumfio bros. decided to pack it in, with Dave moving on to his very successful production career. You can hear some tracks from the unreleased second album as well as b-sides at The Pulsars' MySpace. As of 2007, The Pulsars have reunited for a few shows in the LA area, and are reportedly working on a new album.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shatterproof - Slip It Under The Door
(MCA, 1995)

When Paul Q. Kolderie (owner of famed Massachusetts recording studio Fort Apache) was given his very own boutique imprint label of MCA records, one of the first bands he chose to sign was Minneapolis' Shatterproof. The band, which was originally named Hovercraft but was forced to change its moniker following a lawsuit from Eddie Vedder's wife who had a project of the same name, married jangly power pop with swirling indie rock guitars - or what they liked to call "a chunk of sad guitar noise". MCA/Fort Apache Records released the band's debut, "Slip It Under the Door", in 1995.

"Slip It Under the Door" received production from Polara frontman and fellow Minneapolis-native Ed Ackerson, as well as Fort Apache's Paul Q. Kolderie. Fort Apache had begun as a small studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but quickly found its way onto every one's radar after bands like The Pixies and Radiohead recorded landmark albums there - prompting MCA to offer the studio an imprint label opportunity. Unfortunately Fort Apache records folded almost as quickly as it formed, leaving most of its bands without a record label by 1996 - including Shatterproof, who had just recorded their followup to "Slip It Under The Door". This second effort, "Splinter Queen", went unreleased for years until 2007, when Catlick Records finally released the album, which is currently available at the Catlick Webstore.  Shatterproof split up not long after the dissolution of Fort Apache records, with members going on to form Lunar 9 and Landing Gear.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Molly McGuire - Lime (Epic, 1996)

For many years Kansas City, Missouri was home to some of the best mathy, dissonant, heavy indie rock out there. Bands like Season to Risk, Giant's Chair, Shiner, Boys Life, and Rocket Fuel is the Key came to define the "Kansas City Sound" of the early to mid nineties. Kansas City's Molly McGuire were no exception to this, despite being one of the only bands from that scene to sign with a major label. Its no surprise that the majors came after Molly McGuire, as they did sound considerably more straight ahead rock than some of their more indie-purist peers. The band's discography is not devoid of indie cred though, as they put out their early singles through the indies Hit It! Records (Shiner, Triplefastaction) and Caulfield Records (Christie Front Drive, Mineral) before signing to Epic Records for the full length, "Lime", released in 1996.

"Lime" was produced by Failure mastermind Ken Andrews, as only his second venture into producing records outside of his work with Failure (the first being Blinker The Star's A Bourgeois Kitten - a fantastic album that very well may turn up here at some point). You can especially hear Andrews' influence in the album's opening track, "Coin Toss", which bares a strong resemblance to Failure and other like-minded space rockers such as Hum or fellow Kansas City band Shiner (whom drummer Jason Gerken would later briefly join). Much of the album, however, has almost just as much in common with mainstream grunge-metal bands ala Alice In Chains as it does with Failure or their discordant Kansas City neighbors (sonically speaking, that is). For whatever reason though, "Lime" didn't catch on with mainstream audiences, despite its mainstream rock leanings and a much coveted spot on the Lollapalooza tour. It didn't help that Molly McGuire had serious label issues (a fired A&R guy, a conflict choosing a producer for their second record). When asked in an interview what had happened to Molly McGuire, frontman Jason Blackmore simply responded: "Epic Records happened to Molly McGuire!".  

Eventually the band's members retired the Molly McGuire name to focus on their more traditional rock oriented side project, Gunfighter.  Molly McGuire alumni Jason Blackmore and Jason Gerken played briefly with members of Nothingface (TVT Records) in a project called Kingdom of Snakes, who released one EP in 2004 before disbanding. Jason Gerken is currently playing with the band Open Hand, who have interestingly undergone a radical transformation from Trustkill Records-signed emo/post-hardcore band to quasi 90s rock supergroup featuring Hum frontman Matt Talbott and Season To Risk/Shiner bassist Paul Malinowski. 

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Molly McGuire playing "Coin Toss" circa 1996:

Friday, September 5, 2008

Smashing Orange - No Return In The End (MCA, 1994)

Smashing Orange were hailed as America's answer to the then-burgeoning shoegaze movement by the UK press around the time of their debut in 1991. Their first full-length, "The Glass Bead Game" (which can be found at the consistently-amazing blog, Wilfully Obscure) documents their original shoegaze-inspired style and early lineup, which included frontman Rob Montejo as well as his sister Sara, who provided the requisite female dream-pop vocals. Only a few years later, however, Smashing Orange had signed with MCA records and shed the shoegaze elements of their sound almost entirely (as well as Sara Monetjo). MCA released the band's sophomore record, "No Return In The End", in 1994 to little fanfare, at a time when the world was a bit preoccupied with another band named after a smashing orange food.

Instead of the shoegaze of earlier releases, "No Return In The End" took a more straight forward alternative rock approach. The band even enlisted Jack Endino, producer for Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, etc., for the record. Still present, however, are the 60s psychedelic influences of their early material - at points sounding not unlike revivalists such as The Dandy Warhols. And though the album is long out of print, you can still find the music video for the album's lead single,"The Way That I Love You", on the iTunes store (and unfortunately not on YouTube). Smashing Orange split not too long after this record, but an anthology of the band's early UK-only releases was compiled by Elephant Stone records in 2005. Following the dissolution of Smashing Orange, Montejo formed Love American Style, a band that built on his previous work while adding an almost brit-pop sensibility. Love American Style released one brilliant and criminally overlooked record, 1997's "Undo" on Oxygen records. After a not-so-brief disappearance, Montejo has returned with a new band, The Sky Drops, a duo with a sound that marks a return to the shoegaze of his early career.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Papa Vegas - Hello Vertigo (RCA, 1999)

Take a look at anything written online about Papa Vegas, and you'll see that the most popular reference point is one hit wonders The Verve Pipe - but don't expect "The Freshman" from Papa Vegas. And though the band was discovered and signed by The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark, Papa Vegas' lone album, "Hello Vertigo", is more of a reflection of influences like Failure and Depeche Mode. Vander Ark first heard the band while judging a battle of the bands in their home state of Michigan, and was impressed enough to sign the band to his label, Sid Flips, in 1997. Sid Flips was soon absorbed into the RCA label, giving Papa Vegas a major label deal for their Don Gilmore-produced 1999 debut, "Hello Vertigo".

The band fared decently at radio, where the single "Bombshell" broke the Top 20 Modern Rock Chart. This, combined with opening spots on tours with The Verve Pipe and the Swedish band Kent (who were then supporting their 1998 masterpiece, Isola, which comes highly recommended) should have been enough to spell success for Papa Vegas. Unfortunately, album sales were low and the band split up in 2000, with frontman Joel Ferguson joining The Verve Pipe as replacement bassist the following year. More recently, members of Papa Vegas have reunited for a new group, Miles to Mars, which picks up right where their former project left off.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Creeper Lagoon - I Become Small and Go (Nickelbag, 1998)

Creeper Lagoon's debut album showed a band in transition; it retains some of the Pavement-esque lo-fi elements of their early EP and Sub Pop Singles Club 7", but is also more polished, due in part to the sample-heavy production from The Dust Brother's John King (known for his work on Beck's Odelay and The Beastie Boy's Pauls Boutique). The record, however, is neither Pavement-soundalike nor retro sample-fest ala Beck. Instead, it is a collection of excellent moody, hook-laden indie rock. In fact, this record serves as the link between their earliest indie releases and their major label followup, 2001's "Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday", released on the Dreamworks label (where the band would move into full-on Third Eye Blind-esque slick pop rock).

Creeper Lagoon boasted the songwriting duo of founder Sharky Laguna and Ian Sefchick. The two had played together in a punk band during their high school days in Ohio, before Laguna moved out to San Francisco to start Creeper Lagoon initally as a solo project. Eventually, Sefchick reconnected with Laguna in SF after a brief stint as a member of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After releasing a five-song EP interestingly through the hip-hop indie label Dogday, the band caught the attention of Dust Brother John King, who signed the group to his label, NickelBag records, and lent a production hand to several tracks on the record. Former Sammy and Girls Against Boys member, Luke Wood, also worked on the album, and would later sign the band to major label Dreamworks records while working as A&R at the label (these days Wood is vice president of A&R at Interscope). As the story so often goes, the band's major label debut did not live up to expectations, and the 'ol Lagoon just sort of disappeared for a while. More recently Creeper Lagoon has resurfaced, but has reverted back to being largely the solo project of Sharky Laguna. You can pick up the most recent Creeper Lagoon record, "Long Dry Cold" at the website of Neglektra Records - the digital label founded by Laguna. And while Ian Sefchick's voice is sorely missed, he briefly fronted a band called On The Speakers, who released one EP in 2004 that was "licensed to Universal" and can still be found on the iTunes store.

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Creeper Lagoon playing "Black Hole" live in London circa 1998: